Teen idol Zac Efron faces life at ripe old 22
Young girls adore two things: long-lashed boys resembling girls, and unicorns.
A psychiatrist might speculate on the correlation between the two, but our purpose here is to note that girls in their tender years tend to focus their first puppy love -- at least their first celebrity crush -- on a boy who isn't threateningly macho. The idealized imaginary boyfriend is sweetly pubescent, downy of cheek and smooth of chest. (See: "Lautner, Taylor"; "Bieber, Justin"; "Jonas, Nick.")
The inescapable problem for a performer who apprentices as a man-genue is that one cannot remain a Non-Threatening Boy forever. Somewhere along his professional path, biology asserts itself. Beards germinate and the Teen Choice Award passes to next-gen Disney Channel stars. The maturing cutester moves on to projects aimed at people old enough to drive, or else. (See: "Cassidy, David"; "Phillippe, Ryan"; "Bloom, Orlando.")
Thus the quandary facing Zac Efron. Having graduated with honors from the world of "High School Musical," the doe-eyed 22-year-old actor must figure out what to do with the rest of his career.
Not that his allure is dimming yet. Efron is traveling the country promoting his new movie, "Charlie St. Cloud," a tour that brought a record-breaking crowd of 7,000 swooning, squealing fans to his stop at the Mall of America in Bloomington. For the record, Efron structured the PR excursions so that he could spend weekends at home in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and "Musical" co-star Vanessa Hudgins.
His latest film is a mystical romance that blends a young adult love story and intense drama. He plays a tragedy-traumatized sailing champion, a role that requires him to brawl in a bar but not step onto the dance floor. In fact, he chose the part over the lead in the remake of "Footloose" because "I've been in that world so many times before -- I want to challenge myself."
Balancing dramatic performances against lighthearted entertainments puts him on a course like the one followed by his favorite song-and-dance man, Gene Kelly.
"When you watch Gene Kelly's movies, you want to be him," Efron said. "You wish you could say all the things he said. He had such charisma and style and masculinity. You live vicariously through him."
Efron, who was already appearing in guest roles on several TV series at 15, said he was reluctant to watch "Singin' in the Rain" that year, but his father insisted. It immediately became one of his favorite movies. "When I saw that I actually jumped into tap," he recalled with a smile. Kelly also taught "High School Musical" director/choreographer Kenny Ortega, putting Efron one degree of separation away from his role model.
No office rat
Running his new production company is a step toward creative independence, he said. "We have offices" on the Warner Bros. lot, "and desks and chairs. Now we have a better chance of getting movies made than ever before. I guess now I'm supposed to be coming up with ideas for movies," he said.
Efron's wish list of collaborators includes Zack Snyder ("300," "Watchmen"), Todd Phillips ("The Hangover") and any writers who can create age-appropriate roles for a young actor in transition.
"A lot of the great scripts are either crafted for guys who are a lot older, and you can still hear the voice of that character, and that's just unbelievable for me. Or they're written young and they want to age it up. That's not quite as appealing or smart. We want to be pro-active, collaborate with writers and have a degree of control."
Still, he's not about to settle into a desk-jockey routine of a full-time producer.
"I've never been in my office. I've sort of looked in once. I'm kind of afraid to go in. Then it all will be real."
So far, his choices have been solid. Had things run the usual Hollywood course, he'd have been urged into projects along the lines of "Teen Wolf 3."
Instead, Efron's first post-"High School" project was a grown-up collaboration with indie-artsy director Richard Linklater, who wanted him for a classy period piece celebrating the greatest moviemaker of all time. "Me and Orson Welles" cast Efron as a bright, stage-struck high school senior who becomes a member of Welles' Mercury Theatre in 1937.
"I was really hungry to work with a director I could learn something from," Efron said. "I met with Rick before having read the entire script and after vibing with him and seeing how cool and relaxed he was, I just really wanted to work with him. As I read the script I could see the character was a lot like me. I could see myself pulling it off." Though it was no blockbuster, it proved that Efron could hold his own in a solid acting ensemble including Claire Danes, Christian McKay and Eddie Marsan.
His follow-up was the predictable but pleasant high school body-swap comedy "17 Again." Though it was clearly designed to delight his young fans, indie director Burr Steers (of the darkly comic "Igby Goes Down") brought a caustic edge to the project. The film opened No. 1 at the box office.
In "Charlie St. Cloud," Efron rejoins Steers in a still darker story. Efron tackles scenes of turbulent emotion, especially in relation to his bratty younger brother, whose claims on Charlie prevent him from entering the world of adult relationships.
The role is Efron's first stab at playing a troubled character. "The emotional stuff I had a connection to. The tough part is the endurance, because you have to sustain that for shots that last sometimes for entire days or weeks."
That was a test for Efron, who enjoys "constantly goofing off," entertaining the crew and visitors to the sound stage. "I found myself in a dark place on set, and I'm not used to that. I'm used to a very fun set. This time I had to be a little bit of a downer."
The film's extensive sailing scenes, shot in British Columbia, were exhilarating but demanding, he said. "I thought it would be something I could pick up but, man, it's challenging. It's a hard sport."
What about a future as an action hero?
"I think it's what's driving the action that's so important," Efron said. "Action for the sake of action is a genre that I never really gravitated towards. 'The Matrix' was the type of action I like to see, because that was a psychological thriller with action. Just to beat 'em up -- I know there's a million guys who could do it better."
So why did he call his production company Ninjas Runnin' Wild?
Efron came close to blushing at the memory of the brainstorming process that produced that handle. "I won't tell the story of how we came up with the name," he grinned. What looks like a stoned, toss-off joke, he said, is calculated corporate brand planning with a view to long-term public image control.
"I just figure if you watch Ninjas Runnin' Wild come up before a movie you might remember it. It's not going to be like some of these names. I mean. It's irrelevant, but you might say, 'Oh, it's that one.' You might retain it a little longer because it's unusual."
Spoken like a true survivor.
Zac Efron: Smooth Sailing
Mega-gorgeous HSM star Zac Efron is sitting across from me! The 22-year-old and I are kickin' it at the beach in Marina, Del Rey, Ca. where he has agreed to tell us all about his new romantic drama film Charlie St. Cloud in which he plays a small-town hero who withdraws from life when his little brother dies.
We are learning what Zac likes about his leading lady Amanda Crew, how he dealt with his most embarrassing fan encounter moment on the streets of L.A., where he, Vanessa and pals would love to sail (now that he's learned how for the film) and how he's changed since we first met him in 2005!
Zac's "Charlie" director has only praise for his hard-working young star and reminded us that, for the film 17 Again, Zac practiced spinning a basketball and passing it to the tips of his fingers, until those fingers bled! This is one dedicated actor. He was just as determined to learn to sail like a pro for "Charlie".
Sitting down with Zac to get the latest, we went all retro and handed him a digital pic we took of him in 2005 before HSM ever came out. He was 16.
TeenHollywood: I took this of you in 2005 at a 'meet and greet' for young stars of tomorrow. You had finished HSM but it hadn't even been on TV yet. You were sitting there alone. I decided to come over and talk to this cute young guy and you told me all about 'High School Musical'.
Zac: Oh Wow! [he laughs] That's so funny! That's very cool! [I hand him the picture and he keeps looking at it].
TeenHollywood: Who were you then? Who are you now? And what do you miss about the teen in that picture?
Zac: Oh man! [looking at the picture] I think right there it was just the naiveté. There was always a 'best case scenario' that was next and you were pointed in the right direction and you would either get that project or you wouldn't. It was very simple at that time.
TeenHollywood: And now?
Zac: Now, I'm being privy to so much more information and being behind the scenes of a lot of stuff, it's become more of a full-time job for me. I think here [at age 16], not to say it was less work but, look at me! I don't have a care in the world here [we laugh]. Now I'm running my own ship more. Then I was waiting for that big surprise and I was still in high school. That's one thing that's been great is I'm not having to wake up early for class all the time.
TeenHollywood: You went through a sort of learn-to-sail boot camp for this film. Was sailing hard to learn?
Zac: Sailing is sort of hard. You can't just say 'I'm going sailing this weekend'. There is a lot of preparation that goes into it. You need to get a boat and a crew. It's not like surfing where you just grab your board and go. But, I'd love to do it in the future. I'd like to go some long-distance sailing. I think that would be really fun. Me and my dad want to do that.
TeenHollywood: That's cool but if you and Vanessa or you and your friends were going to just secretly sail away, where would be your dream destination and why?
Zac: I don't know but the sail to Hawaii is supposed to be really fun. It takes about ten days to get there. That would be a big commitment. You'd need a pretty devoted crew. That would take weeks and then we wouldn't want to leave the island for the big sail back. But somewhere with clear blue water would be really fun to sail.
TeenHollywood: What is it like when you see yourself on the screen now? How do you feel?
Zac: My head is HUGE [he laughs]. Enrique [Chediak] was a real cool [director of photography] and he’s really good at making everything look beautiful. I noticed that first and foremost. As far as watching myself on screen, I tend to, especially the first time around, pick out every single flaw, or things I could have and should have done better. I’m more of a cringer at first, and then when it’s years down the road and it’s out of the way I can kind of look back and appreciate it somehow.
TeenHollywood: What was it about Amanda Crew that clicked so well with you? Why was she perfect for the part of your leading lady?
Zac: Amanda had a very different read. She was very natural and very stunning; she has a unique look that I hadn't seen before. I couldn't look at Amanda and name any other actress who looked like her or had her presence. She came in prepared and excited and she was a little bit nervous and cute and just seemed like she'd be a great person to work with; somebody who could be real in the circumstances of the story. She proved to be that and so much more.
TeenHollywood: You two have some pretty intense romantic scenes. Was that awkward for you?
Zac: No. She was really easygoing. I’ve never really found romantic scenes intensely or incredibly awkward, which I was supposed to be during this. So, I think we found common ground. We held each other’s hands through this whole experience. We just got along really well. There was nothing to be nervous about. The only weird part was being in a graveyard for that love scene was kind of, a little bit weird.
TeenHollywood: I can imagine! What did you and Amanda do off-set of before shooting to get to know each other?
Zac: When you're on set like that, as much as we love the crew and hang out with the crew a lot, we do, as actors, like to go off and do our own things. Amanda would come over and hang out all the time and not just to read scripts. We'd do a lot of rehearsal but we'd go to Whistler (Canadian ski resort) for the weekend and just hang out and do fun stuff. We were a pretty close group of friends.
TeenHollywood: For a lot of the film, your character Charlie is just dead inside, just going through the motions. How hard was this to play for an energetic, life-loving guy like you?
Zac: [laughs] I really had to subdue that goofball.
TeenHollywood: Your inner goofball?
Zac: Exactly. I had to detach myself. I turned my phone off almost entirely. I wasn't on my i-phone the entire time I was there. It was fun. He was cut off so I tried to do as much as I could to do that too. Not that it was method acting but I did as much as I could to stay in character. You have to do that. Otherwise, it doesn't come across as genuine.
TeenHollywood: Charlie's younger brother is a big part of his life. Did your connection to your own younger brother help your portrayal?
Zac: Definitely. My brother is 18 now so we're about 4 and a half years apart. In all these scenarios I just pictured him there with me. And Charlie (Tahan who plays Zac's bro in the film) was great. We had such a great relationship by the end of the film and it was coming very naturally. We became great friends and would bounce off each other.
TeenHollywood: Have you had a family loss like Charlie?
Zac: Yeah, absolutely but I don't want to talk about it specifically but I think everyone experiences that so I can relate.
TeenHollywood: Have you ever had a paranormal experience; saw something that you were not positive was really there? [There is a paranormal element in this film].
Zac: I've definitely had that. I don't see dead people but everyone has had that moment when the hair on the back of your neck raises up and you wonder what's really going on. I've always been intrigued by it. I've always been curious about it. All of it. It's incredibly interesting. It doesn't really come from personal experience but I've always had an affinity for that culture. My mom's really spiritual and so I would like to believe that your loved-ones who move on, a piece of them stays with you.
TeenHollywood: You as Charlie and your little bro Sam are body surfing on trashcan lids in the rain. It's a cute scene. Were you really doing it?
Zac: We're really doing that. Initially, in the script, it was sliding in the mud but just from personal experience, the sliding in the mud thing is never really comfortable. You get banged up. I told Burr (his director) it would be cooler if we could actually skim-board so we figured out a way to work that in instead of just sliding through water on our stomachs which wouldn't be fun for very long. We wanted to give it a little more style. It was fun.
TeenHollywood: There is a traffic accident in the film that really changes Charlie St. Cloud's life. A lot of young stars have been in some serious traffic accidents. Shia LaBeouf comes to mind. Are you just a great driver or have you had some close calls?
Zac: I'm a pretty good driver. I don't like to talk and multi-task. I have a Blue-Tooth thing in my car so I'm pretty safe. I did an Audi driving course on a professional race track and I didn't know at all about driving technique or skill and I've learned quite a bit recently. There's a whole thing about weight distribution in the car for maximum turning and hitting your apex on U turns. That's what we learned and that's really improved my driving a lot.
TeenHollywood: We've heard that you want to do a big action role so might you use that training soon in a movie?
Zac: Maybe, yeah. That would be cool but I don't know if I'd really be doing it. In driving movies, I feel like you don't do most of the driving.
TeenHollywood: Speaking of driving, when you go cruisin' around town and are recognized, what is the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you?
Zac: You know those Star Tours vans that drive all over town with the tops cut off so tourists are just right there in the open? I pulled up to one of those and didn't realize I was next to one. I had my windows rolled down and I was bumpin' music and I heard a faint yell. I'm like 'What was that?' And I look up and realize I'm next to a big bus and the whole Star Tours van was goin' nuts, freaking out. I just looked up and said 'Wazzup?' That was pretty funny.
TeenHollywood: What is your biggest guilty pleasure that might not be too healthy and might blow all the amazing work you've done on your body lately [is he blushing?].
Zac: [smiling] Hummm. Well we go to the movies a lot and I just love buttered popcorn. Whatever that stuff really is on there, I could drink it straight [he laughs]. It's good.
TeenHollywood: We know you will be the voice of Anakin Skywalker on "Robot Chicken" but which of these future projects for your new production company Ninjas Runnin' Wild Productions are you looking most forward to: Art of the Steal, Einstein Theory, Fire or Snabba Cash?
Zac: All of them are very different and they are all in different stages of development. We have a lot of scripts coming in and I have to get to those really soon so we'll see. We don't know which one is going to come together first yet.
Zac keeps the old picture we took of him and is looking at it when we leave.
Q&A: Zac Efron on acting, sailing, new film
Teen idols don't have much of a shelf life, and the transition to full-grown celebrity is an obstacle course of sex, drugs and paparazzi. But "High School Musical" heartthrob Zac Efron has had no trouble maintaining his well-scrubbed image while challenging himself to grow as an actor.
Last year, he stretched his range in "Me and Orson Welles," and now, at 22, he has his first role over the drinking age in "Charlie St. Cloud," which opens Friday.
Efron plays Charlie, who gives up a bright future so he can keep a promise to the ghost of his kid brother, to practice baseball every day at sunset. It's "Field of Dreams" meets "The Sixth Sense," with some yacht racing and smooching thrown in. And plenty of shirtless shots for the lady fans.
Question: How did this project come your way?
Answer: I went and stayed the night on a sailboat with my dad. I brought one script to read and it just happened to be "Charlie St. Cloud." It was so surreal. I didn't know anything about the script or that it was a sailing movie. When I was reading through the racing scenes, the wind started to pick up and the boat started to rock, and I was like, "Wow, this is . . . very obvious." It felt right.
Q: Did you learn to sail for the movie?
A: I did. I was in Vancouver two weeks prior to filming, and we sailed more or less every day. It was my first time actually sailing a boat. I've been on a sailboat, but I wasn't crewing. It was a short duration to learn how to sail in, so we really got out quickly and capsized the boat a few times. It's hard.
Q: What else was an opportunity to learn in this film?
A: This was a more emotional role, a lot more grown-up role. I could relate to the character's journey in a lot of ways. I have a younger brother, and the relation of the brothers is really the core of the story. The way he is with his brother, the way he handles him, the writing made sense, it seemed real. I didn't read it and go, "Oh, that's a sappy brother relationship." He was hard on him. They weren't all high-fives and hugs. Brotherly love is unspoken.
Q: You also worked with director Burr Steers on "17 Again." What is he like?
A: He's very, very intelligent with dialogue and acting. He's an actor himself, so that's exactly what I needed. He doesn't have notes for anyone else. He never has notes for the camera guys. It's almost like he doesn't care about that stuff. Which is good for me, because I like all the guidance I can get. He rides me a lot, and I appreciate that.
Q: You worked with Richard Linklater on "Me and Orson Welles." How did that experience compare?
A: That was a phenomenal experience. I was a huge fan of his work coming into the movie, but I was a bit nervous. I had just finished "17 Again," and that was in Los Angeles, so I was at home and I had my friends and everybody to rely on, bounce ideas off. For "Me and Orson Welles," we went to the Isle of Man and locked ourselves in a theater and pretty much never came out. So I was really dependent on Rick, asked him tons of questions, just trying to get as much out of him as I could.
He can be a bit quiet or come across shy, but it was great. He's a very talented director, and once you get him talking, he's an encyclopedia of movies, this whole era of Orson Welles. Rick knew everything about it. He knew where Orson was, what kind of shoes he was wearing, where he ordered his steaks and how he liked them.
Q: You also guest-starred on "Entourage" last year. Is that show true to life in Hollywood?
A: It's a bit heightened. Sometimes they're spot on. I love "Entourage," I think it's a fantastic show, but that's not at all what my life is like. It may be like that for some actors.
Q: You do seem to avoid the celebrity-news machine. Are you carefully controlled, or are you just a low-key guy?
A: I think I'm just a low-key guy. I get asked about other actors, celebrities, but I'm never one to try to get involved with that or voice my opinion. Because I've noticed and learned that people who have longevity and are making the cool movies, they tend not to be the ones who are famous for their personal lives.
Q: What's next?
A: I just started a production company under Warner Bros. called Ninjas Runnin' Wild. We wanted to work for Warner Bros. and the studios, but wanted to be proactive and not wait. They shouldn't have to do all the work.
Q: What kind of exercise regimen do you use to keep your celebrity shape?
A: It's not celebrity shape, it's just personal shape.
Q: You do work in one of the few industries where people get fired for gaining 10 pounds.
A: You know, I want to be prepared for anything. And I want to be healthy. I used to go running with my dad. On Saturday, when most kids were sleeping in, he'd shake me and say, "Let's go." We'd do a 2 1/2-, 3-mile run, just to get me away from the computer, because I was obsessed with computer games.
Q: What did you play?
A: Counter-Strike . . .
Q: Shooter games?
A: Yeah. I never played World of Warcraft, and my friends tell me I'm lucky I didn't get sucked into that. But I love watching it. I just can't figure out what's going on.